Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dream Match turns into Mismatch

Wow. That was sad. It felt like a boxing funeral. It was a boxing funeral.

It was an annihlation you had to see to fully comprehend. If you didn't witness with your own two eyes, you would not be able to truly grasp it. Manny Pacquiao crushed Oscar de la Hoya Saturday night in Las Vegas. He destroyed him. He decimated him. He humiliated him. He hit him and he hit him and he hit him again. Then he hit him some more. It got worse over the eight rounds; by the end, Oscar wasn't even swinging back. He was just getting hit. Over and over and over again.

De la Hoya had become the proverbial champion fighting that one fight too many. Other than Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, no one saw it coming. To the rest of us, Oscar's boxing death unfolded in one night.

It went from shocking to kind of numbing to just plain hard to watch. It wasn't quite Larry Holmes beating up a defenseless Muhammad Ali in 1980, but it was something like it. Of course, I know that fight only through the internet; I wasn't born until 1988, so I truly only know Ali's legend via ESPN Classic, a movie starring Will Smith, and YouTube. It would be impossible for me to watch a grainy, 28 year old tape of him on a computer screen and feel the same pangs of sympathy for Ali that those who lived through his career did as he was absorbing blow after blow.

But I lived through Oscar's run. Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are the best boxers of this era, but Oscar was unequivocally the most famous. Plus, he was from (East) LA, my hometown. He's a good man. I was rooting for Oscar last night. Now, I know how those Ali followers felt. Saturday's tilt made me squeamish, and when it became obvious in the seventh and eighth rounds that referee Tony Weeks could step in at any time (and arguably should have, although I respect that he gave the aged warrior the benefit of the doubt), my heart started beating in anticipation. Oscar was getting pummeled, and the stoppage could come at any moment. Dueling emotions were at work here: on the one hand, I didn't want to see De la Hoya go out like that. On the other, he was being badly embarrassed, and even his puncher's chance seemed vanished - so why not just stop it?

Luckily, it was over before Oscar was seriously damaged - he came out of his corner before the start of the ninth, but only to embrace and congratulate Pacquaio, boxing's new big draw. It was a dazzling performance by the Pacman - with Mayweather in retirement (more likely an extended vacation, of course), Manny is - by far - the sport's best pound-for-pound fighter, as well as it's most exciting. But for Oscar, it was over - for this night and probably forever.

De la Hoya, a warrior just as much as a cash cow, was too prideful to utter the words "I quit," but knew he had no chance and offered nothing in the way of protest to his corner's decision to throw in the towel. His body language spoke defeat, and the forced, humbled acceptance of it. Pacquaio was clearly the much better man, obvious to everyone, including Oscar.

But that's sports, right? Pacquaio, 29, is in the prime of his career. Oscar is 35, not even competitive on this night. It goes like that. LaDainian Tomlinson, once as breathtakingly good as any tailback to ever play, is averaging 3.7 yards per carry this season. Through 13 games, he has had two 100-yard outings and is on pace for the poorest rushing totals (yards and touchdowns) of his career. His toe may still be bothering him, but the real problem is that he's 29 now - running backs start going downhill at 28. Adrian Peterson, aged 23, is the guy now.

Allen Iverson, now 33, the NBA's third all-time leader in career scoring average, is producing only 18 a game this year. For this year, the Pistons would be better off with Derrick Rose, a rookie.

Greg Maddux retired this week. Nobody lasts forever.

Though he entered the bout about a pound-and-half lighter than De la Hoya, Oscar is naturally about 25 pounds heavier - he began his pro career at 130 lbs, Pacquiao at 106. But Pacquiao was simply too fast, too quick, too maneuverable. Had Oscar been 29, it would have been more of a fair fight. Maybe he could have caught Pacman, maybe he could have avoided him. Instead, he just got beat up. Badly. Hit. Repeatedly.

Oscar's legacy? Obvious Hall-of-Famer, 10-time world champion in six different weight classes, Olympic gold medalist in Barcelona in 1992. No fighter ever generated more money. Totally classy. Never ducked anybody - he fought Tito, he fought Shane (twice), he fought Hopkins, he fought Floyd, he fought Pacman. But what endures may be that he lost all six of those matches (albeit a couple of them controversially), and the argument can be made that he never beat a truly great fighter at the peak of their powers (Julio Cesar Chavez, whom he beat twice, and Pernell Whitaker, had both probably advanced their apex's).

The final Compubox number's from the night? 224 of 585 total landed for Manny, as opposed to 83 of 402 for Oscar. 195 of 33 power punches met their mark for Pacquiao, only 51 of 164 De la Hoya, 59 percent to 31 percent. But if you didn't see it, you still don't get it.

Oscar did. He was ulitmately non-committal, but also reasonable, about his boxing future in his post-fight interview with Larry Merchant. While he stopped just short of saying "I'm finished," his words spoke of a man that knew he was. He told Roach, his former trainer turned nemesis who in the events leading up to the match said that after watching Oscar's victory over Steve Forbes in May, he realized De la Hoya no longer had his fastball after and predicted exactly the round this one would end, after the fight, "You were right, Freddie. I don't have it anymore."

He doesn't.

As for me? I just wish I could unsee what I saw.

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